Thursday, July 18, 2013

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 1: Seger Ellis

We begin a new series of articles, spotlighting singers whose popularity has faded over the years and who, for different reasons, have unjustly fallen into obscurity. With the help of a very interesting CD released by The Old Masters and entitled Jazz in a Sentimental Mood, the first entry in the series is devoted to the lesser-known but great Houston-born vocalist/songwriter/pianist Seger Ellis.

At the outset of his career, Seger Ellis did not really want to be a singer. Rather, his main interest lay in writing songs and playing the piano, and it was indeed as a pianist with the now forgotten Lloyd Finlay Orchestra that he made his first recordings in 1925 in his native Houston for Victor. In addition to the sides he cut as part of the Finlay band, Ellis was asked to make some piano solo recordings, which were never issued due to technical difficulties during the recording process. However, Ellis would soon be summoned to Camden, New Jersey, by the label to wax his piano solos again, this time using the then newly introduced electrical recording method, and upon their release, these records were sufficiently well received by the public to persuade Ellis to launch a professional career as a recording artist in New York City. Incidentally, these early piano solos, most of which were written by Ellis himself, can be found in the excellent CD Black and White Piano, Volume 1 (Document Records, 1998), a highly recommendable collection that also includes cuts by Clarence M. James, Sidney Williams, and Lovin' Sam Theard, among other obscure 1920s pianists.

It should be noted that Ellis' intention at this stage was still to sell himself as a pianist, not as a singer. This would soon change, though, when he was encouraged by the small radio station on which he was appearing to sing as well as playing piano over the air. Thus, after his move to New York, when he made his first recordings for Columbia, the company decided to promote him as a crooner, marketing his records to rival those of Gene Austin, who was one of the foremost vocalists of the late 1920s, with smash hits such as "My Blue Heaven," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue." Columbia's marketing efforts most likely explain why Ellis' voice sounds so high-pitched on his Columbia and Okeh records: this was a conscious attempt to make Ellis sound like other popular crooners of the era, such as Austin, Nick Lucas, Johnny Marvin, and Little Jack Little. In his excellent liner notes for the CD Jazz in a Sentimental Mood, Allan Dodge hints at the fact that Ellis was not thrilled by the sound of his voice on these sides, but he kept cultivating that style in view of the success of the records.

One of the attractions of Ellis' recorded output for Columbia and Okeh lies in the amazing personnel that accompanied him on most of the sessions, featuring some of New York's most prominent jazz musicians of the time. It appears that Ellis was granted the power to choose the members of the studio band for his recordings, and if that is the case, he certainly had a keen ear for good jazz, since he was often backed by highly accomplished musicians like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Rube Bloom, Manny Klein, Hoagy Carmichael, and Muggsy Spanier, many of whom would go on to greater things during the Swing Era and beyond. Ellis himself played piano on some of the dates, and Eddie Lang's guitar is heavily featured on most of these very inspired arrangements, which are often quite adventurous, as in the case of Ellis' 1928 version of "Where the Shy Little Violets Grow," with an interesting steel guitar solo by Andy Sannella. In August of 1929, Ellis' studio band even included Louis Armstrong, who was then making his legendary series of hot five and seven recordings, on trumpet, and their reading of "Ain't Misbehavin'" remains one of Ellis' most enduring recordings.

At the time of this writing, there is only one full-length CD devoted to the music of Seger Ellis: Jazz in a Sentimental Mood, produced by the reissue label The Old Masters. Its title accurately encapsulates the defining elements of Ellis' style: his recordings are often sentimental, characterized by his high-pitched voice and relaxed singing style, but there is an undeniable hotness to them, and they are full of jazzy solos by some of the most important jazz instrumentalists of the period. In my opinion, the jazzy quality of the arrangements is precisely what differentiates Ellis' recordings from those of Gene Austin, whose accompaniments were not always comparatively as jazz-oriented. Ellis' repertoire consists of some of the best pop songs written in the 1920s and '30s, and all of them are so enjoyable that it becomes rather hard to name any favorites. The collection includes sides cut over a four-year period, between 1928 and 1931, featuring gems such as "If I Can't Have You, " "Cheerful Little Earful," "I Wonder How It Feels?" and Ellis' beautiful, pensive version of "It's a Lonesome Old Town." The remastering of these old 78s is excellent, and so are Allan Dodge's informative liner notes, which provide some interesting background for the recordings.

Ellis' recording career came to an end during the early years of the Great Depression, although he did assemble a big band in the late 1930s, bearing the odd name of the Choir of Brass Orchestra and featuring his wife, Irene Taylor, as the vocalist. Interestingly, though he did not record his own songs for Columbia and Okeh, he remained active as a songwriter, composing popular songs like "Little Jack Frost Get Lost" and "You're All I Want for Christmas." He passed away in relative obscurity in Houston in 1995, but as the twenty-six songs included in Jazz in a Sentimental Mood clearly show, his very appealing, jazz-influenced singing deserves higher recognition that it has received.


There are several videos with Seger Ellis recordings available on YouTube, among which we recommend the piano solo "Shivery Stomp," "Here Am I (Broken Hearted)" (a tune also recorded by Johnnie Ray in the 1950s), "Should I?" and "Without You Sweetheart." There is even an interesting, though undated, radio interview with Seger Ellis and Smith Ballew recorded late in their careers.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Vintage Records Review Desk 3: Tony Martin, Dickie Valentine, Chris Connor, Count Basie, Harry James

Now that our first baby daughter, Lillian Sabela Garcia-Fernandez, "Libby," has arrived and filled our lives with joy, I understandably have less free time to devote to writing articles for The Vintage Bandstand. However, a recent trip to Nashville's best used record store, The Great Escape, yielded some interesting finds, five of which are briefly under scrutiny here. None of them are new releases, but in my opinion, they are all worth your time and your money for different reasons.

We begin with three vocal records—two interesting compilations and an all-time classic album. The first of them, The Best of Tony Martin: The Mercury Years (Mercury, 1996), brings together the twenty-five tracks that Tony Martin laid down for Mercury over a two-year period, in 1946 and 1947. By this time, Martin was an established star thanks to several hit recordings made for Brunswick and Decca before World War II. These post-war Mercury sides represent a sort of transition for Martin, who would make his most enduring contributions to American popular music after leaving the label and signing with RCA. The six sessions that Martin cut for Mercury find him covering other artists' hits, such as Eddy Howard's "To Each His Own" and Johnny Mercer's "A Gal in Calico," but also attempting older songs like "Guilty", "I'll See You in My Dreams," and "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame," as well as standards such as "Stardust," "Body and Soul," and "Tea for Two." Martin's rich, powerful voice is in perfect form here, accompanied by accomplished studio orchestras conducted by Al Sack and with occasional backing from vocal groups The Starlighters and The Lyttle Sisters.

Though totally unknown in the United States and endowed with a vocal instrument that was not as powerful as Martin's, British crooner Dickie Valentine quickly built a loyal following in the United Kingdom throughout the 1950s, scoring big hits like "Mr. Sandman" and "The Finger of Suspicion." His fifties singles are compiled in the three-CD set The Complete 50s Singles (Acrobat, 2010), which even unearths his rare early recordings with the Ted Heath Orchestra. These were the days before the advent of rock'n'roll, before Elvis and Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard, and Valentine's soft, caressing voice was tailor-made for sweet, romantic ballads. Like most vocalists of the period, Valentine came out of the very active British dance band scene, graduating to a very successful solo career after a brief stint with Heath, whose band would back him on some of his solo recordings. His voice was better suited to ballads than to rhythm numbers, which is perhaps why he waxed several waltzes and covered quite a few Nat King Cole numbers for the British market. By the late 1950s his record sales were deeply affected by the growing popularity of skiffle and rock'n'roll, to such an extent that he virtually quit making records in the 1960s. His life came to a tragic closing in 1971, following a car crash, but the songs featured in this compilation are among the best British pop produced in the 1950s.

In 1954, around the same time that Valentine was hitting his stride in the British Isles, Chris Connor put an end to her long tenure with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and kicked off her solo career with a 10-inch LP cut for Bethlehem Records. Its contents, along with material culled from further sessions made around the same time, were reissued on Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland (Avenue Jazz, 2000). The CD opens with five songs on which Connor is beautifully accompanied by a trio led by the often-underrated Ellis Larkins, whose backing shows a perfect understanding of Connor's wistful vocal style. As the title of the album suggests, Connor does treat classics such as "What Is There to Say," "Try a Little Tenderness," and "Spring Is Here" as lullabies sung in a subdued, relaxed way, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Lee Wiley's fifties recordings. These five opening tunes are followed by three sides from a session with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Sy Oliver, which are not as satisfying despite Connor's fine vocals and Oliver's tasteful arrangements. Among these, the ballad "Blue Silhouette" is decidedly the winner. Connor returns to a small-group setting for the last session that makes up the CD, for which the Vinnie Burke Quintet provides some elegant backing that is very well suited to Connor's voice. Together, they turn in some great renditions of standards like "A Cottage for Sale," "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Gone with the Wind," closing the session with an interesting reading of Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye." Overall, this is one of the best albums in the discography of Chris Connor and proves that, at least in the early years of her solo career, she felt much more comfortable singing with a jazz-oriented small group than with a larger orchestra.

The most pleasant surprises of my record-buying trip to Nashville, though, were two compilations that I was certainly not expecting to find. One of them, The Complete Decca Recordings (MCA, 1992) of Count Basie, is a three-CD set that no serious jazz record collection should be without. Cut between 1937 and 1939, these are the sides that cemented the reputation of one of the most swinging of all big bands, whose ranks were graced during this period by so much talent that it would be unfair not to mention each and every one of the participants. In any case, Basie's sidemen on his Decca recordings include, among others, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Claude Williams, Freddie Green, Chu Berry, Dicky Wells, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Harry "Sweets" Edison, all of them at or near the peak of their powers. Vocal duties were handled by Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes, both of whom cut some of their career-defining sides for Basie, and with musicians of such stature, it is no wonder that even the weaker numbers that Decca made the band record make for a thrilling listening experience. The set, complete with photos, personnel information, and comprehensive liner notes by Steven Lasker, constitutes, in the words of critics Richard Cook and Brian Morton, "desert-island music and . . . a priority for collectors." Unfortunately, it is currently out of print, but anyone lucky enough, as I was, to find a copy, needn't have any second thoughts about adding it to their collection.

Also out of print is the final disc under review today, a lovely collection of live cuts by Harry James and His Music Makers made during an engagement at the Hollywood Palladium in March and April of 1955 and issued on CD simply as Trumpet Blues (Drive Entertainment, 1995). There is at least a two-fold reason why this release is highly recommendable: for one thing, there is a dearth of live recordings of the James band from the 1950s; moreover, these are excellent recordings made using a pioneering stereo tape recorder developed by the sound engineer Gerry Macdonald. Then, of course, there is the music itself: it is, indeed, a joy to listen to the James orchestra in such high fidelity going through an appealing mixture of old hits ("You Made Me Love You"), throwbacks to James' tenure with Benny Goodman ("Roll 'Em," "Don't Be That Way," "Stealin' Apples"), and some Basie-influenced numbers ("Two O'Clock Jump," "Back Beat Boogie"). The CD opens with James' own hard-swinging "Trumpet Blues" and features a beautiful reading of "Serenade in Blue" and a Latin-flavored take on "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." The Harry James band that appeared at the Hollywood Palladium in 1955 boasted a group of outstanding musicians, including such legends as Juan Tizol (valve trombone), Willie Smith (alto sax), Corky Corcoran (tenor sax), and Larry Kinnamon (piano). Unreleased for almost forty years, these recordings attest to the amazing musicianship of the post-Big Band Era James orchestra, and the good news is that Macdonald also captured the bands of Les Brown and Les & Larry Elgart on the same stage and using the same recording equipment.